Monday, December 6, 2010

When it's THIS Good He Ain't EVER too Old (A "Review" of Chuck Berry's 84th Birthday Show at the Pageant on October 16, 2010)

St. Louis, October 16, 2010

Chuck Berry turns 84 on Monday, but tonight, in St. Louis, he turned 40.

You could see it and hear it in the very first notes, in the perfect intros, in the old Chuck Berry riffs, played perfectly by a grinning, happy, Chuck Berry.

It was beautiful.

His guitar was ringing like a bell (most of time!).  His singing voice was young, wry and full of humor. He scooted 2 and 1/2 times (the 1/2 to get his grandson going!)  He shook his shoulders, showed us his shoes (twice!), played from his shoulder, strummed, and thumped and and picked like a MF.

I feel like the luckiest guy in the world-- except that there was a full house of lucky folk, and a very happy time was had by all.

There is something outlandishly wonderful about these St. Louis shows-- Chuck Berry on stage in the city he so evidently loves, surrounded by band members he's played with for years (and whom he so evidently loves), surrounded by family on stage and off.  A huge contingent of Berrys sat to my right, including his wife Themetta, and four of them worked the stage.  Darlin' Ingrid Clay Berry played harp and sang; Charles II played guitar, and Charles III played guitar right beside him-- until he was coaxed by granddad into doing the scoot!  And Charles Edward Anderson Berry played and sang and moved like he was at his own 40th birthday party.

Somewhere, someone out there has good photographs of this show.  Send them to me!  In the meantime I'll do what I can with what I've got from my crappy little camera and my pathetic camera skills.

As for a description, what can I say?  Chuck Berry (forever young) turned younger still tonight in St. Louis.  He was feeling his oats.  He played old, familiar licks on that beautiful, scratched up, taped up, wine red Gibson, and pulled out a couple of tidbits I've never heard live.  And he sang, with an incredible, young voice.  (It's a benefit of his later years, with less touring, and less day to day wear and tear on his voice.  But tonight was special.  Tonight the melodies returned full force.

The band-- as usual, they were great.  Chuck kept returning to Bob Lohr and encouraging him to do his thing on keyboards.  Keith Robinson and Jim Marsala held the beat, which never faltered.  Charles II and Charles III wailed when asked, and held down the fort the rest of the time.  And Ingrid was spectacular.  (I've heard her on records for decades, and seen her on film and video, but never live.  Glad I finally got the chance.)  My brother, who loves dance, came to the show and was talking afterwords about how Ingrid and Chuck know how to move.  And isn't that part of it?  Even when he's just walking on stage Chuck Berry does it with such charisma and grace that you can't stop looking.  And Ingrid?  When she bends down in those black leather pants, or leans back and blows-- well, you can't stop looking at that, either.  What a family.

There was a special moment when Ingrid had crossed the stage and looked up to her dad at the end of a solo.  He locked eyes with her and mouthed the words "I love you."

The men got a more boyish nod.  "See that boy over there on the right, playing guitar?  That's Charles Berry!  And see that bald-headed guy playing guitar right next to him?  That's also Charles Berry!"

He started with "Roll Over Beethoven," doing a perfect introduction on the guitar and nailing every riff he played.  Then he chugged straight into the chords of "School Day," taking special relish from the "slot" line.  Then "Memphis."  When he started "Carol" he must not have liked the first few notes, so he stopped and started again and (no surprise tonight) nailed it again-- and then started doing what Mr. Richards thought impossible 24 years ago, playing lead and rhythm and singing like it was about 24 years ago.

(Do I sound surprised?  I guess in a sense I am.  The last time I saw him, at Blueberry Hill, he put on a great show, with a lot of great rhythm guitar and beautiful singing-- but his fingers weren't really finding the notes on lead.  And the reviews from Phoenix weren't especially kind.  [Of course, Arizona is earning a reputation as the unkindest state.]  But tonight, for most of the show, he couldn't miss, and he clearly knew it.)

(I'm only guessing here, but I think he could hear himself tonight, which might make all the difference.  The sound at The Pageant is good.  And the band seemed restrained-- holding back just a bit on volume so the man at the front could hear what he was doing.)

Meanwhile, during "Carol," he started thinking ("I do that sometimes!") and it became "Little Queenie" for a bit.  Then back to Carol, thumping on the strings like a drum.  There was a moment he was singing "oh" to the girl so plaintively you thought he might cry!

He began "Wee Wee Hours" with the patented intro you might hear on "I've Got a Booking" then took us all to blues school.  I love Chuck Berry's rock and roll, but I probably love his blues even more.  The first time I pushed open a door to see the man live 40 years ago he was singing blues to a half filled auditorium, bending notes in his own way, and tonight he did it on "Wee Wee Hours" and another blues song I didn't recognize, sharing both with Ingrid on harp.  At a couple of points during the blues numbers he began doing a rhythm riff-- a 12 note arpeggio from an old blues that I'll identify later (It'll come to me!).  Anyway, another rabbit from the hat.

He responded to a request with "Nadine," (were you there?), chugging away at its complicated rhythm riff; he played "Rock and Roll Music," giving a special lyrical mouth twisting to the lines about modern jazz, and ending with a powerful cha cha cha of chords.  He played "Let it Rock," which must be one of his favorites.  He played a verse of the one about "Baja California" and the senorita.  (He forgot the words.  I forget the title!  Ah well.) (La Juanda!)

He finished with "Reelin' and Rockin'," which didn't last till the break of dawn, but kept going for about the closest thing to an encore that I've seen Chuck Berry do, when he got most of the way off stage, then came back to sit on the drum riser and play a while longer.  And then a bit of "House Lights," and he left.

Which was enough.

But I got lucky.  After the show I got a chance to meet my hero for a couple minutes in the dressing room, and give him some small gifts.  I babbled and gushed, told him what I thought of him, (which is some pretty good things), and thanked him as best I can for what he's done for me and all of us.  I shook his hand, and touched his shoulder, and he bumped my forearm.  I gave him the picture I drew of him when I was 17 off the Bio cover.  I gave him Doug's photo of him kneeling and playing.  I gave him printouts of interviews from some people who love him, like Judy, Karen, Bob, Bob and Daryl.  It's something I'll never forget.  Special thanks to Bob Lohr and Jim Marsala for that one.

Someday I'll find words.  Tonight?  Just reporting.  And feeling like my cross-continental journey was well worth it.  And it's just starting!  Wednesday?   Blueberry Hill!


Anonymous said...

Thank you Peter!!!
You is really lucky.
I loved the post,good lucky in Blueberry Hill again.
Ida May

Peter said...

Ida May-- I thought of you and how you went back to your hotel after a show and couldn't sleep. Me neither, even after only getting 3-4 hours sleep the night before. I lay awake till 2 or 3 am, then woke at 7. Too good!

Anonymous said...

That's wonderful friend...forever to remember...

Anonymous said...

Tulane, I have tears in my eyes reading this - I am so happy for you - I wish I was there so much. You are right, the shows in St. Louis are so special for all of us and Chuck too....Thank You so much for taking the time and writing this. Like Jan and Peter have mentioned it is like we were there with you at the concert. Thank You Again...
CB Forum ID - Busseybootlegger

Anonymous said...

This is so touching - I try to put myself in your position, but it just feels too good to be true. More like a dream.


Anonymous said...

I've had the good luck to see many great shows, but this was one of the most enjoyable of my life. And, with the father of rock and roll, his daughter, son, and grandson, all rockin', it was the greatest family show ever! --Paul

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the recap--such great memories we have from a great night in St. Louis... This was a happy read after learning the sad news tonight. All the best from Chicago!